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  • Hi. So I'd like to talk a little bit about the people

  • who make the things we use every day:

  • our shoes, our handbags, our computers and cell phones.

  • Now, this is a conversation that often calls up a lot of guilt.

  • Imagine the teenage farm girl who makes less than

  • a dollar an hour stitching your running shoes,

  • or the young Chinese man who jumps off a rooftop

  • after working overtime assembling your iPad.

  • We, the beneficiaries of globalization, seem to exploit

  • these victims with every purchase we make,

  • and the injustice

  • feels embedded in the products themselves.

  • After all, what's wrong with a world in which a worker

  • on an iPhone assembly line can't even afford to buy one?

  • It's taken for granted that Chinese factories are oppressive,

  • and that it's our desire for cheap goods

  • that makes them so.

  • So, this simple narrative equating Western demand

  • and Chinese suffering is appealing,

  • especially at a time when many of us already feel guilty

  • about our impact on the world,

  • but it's also inaccurate and disrespectful.

  • We must be peculiarly self-obsessed to imagine that we

  • have the power to drive tens of millions of people

  • on the other side of the world to migrate and suffer

  • in such terrible ways.

  • In fact, China makes goods for markets all over the world,

  • including its own, thanks to a combination of factors:

  • its low costs, its large and educated workforce,

  • and a flexible manufacturing system

  • that responds quickly to market demands.

  • By focusing so much on ourselves and our gadgets,

  • we have rendered the individuals on the other end

  • into invisibility, as tiny and interchangeable

  • as the parts of a mobile phone.

  • Chinese workers are not forced into factories

  • because of our insatiable desire for iPods.

  • They choose to leave their homes in order to earn money,

  • to learn new skills, and to see the world.

  • In the ongoing debate about globalization, what's

  • been missing is the voices of the workers themselves.

  • Here are a few.

  • Bao Yongxiu: "My mother tells me to come home

  • and get married, but if I marry now, before I have fully

  • developed myself, I can only marry an ordinary worker,

  • so I'm not in a rush."

  • Chen Ying: "When I went home for the new year,

  • everyone said I had changed. They asked me,

  • what did you do that you have changed so much?

  • I told them that I studied and worked hard. If you tell them

  • more, they won't understand anyway."

  • Wu Chunming: "Even if I make a lot of money,

  • it won't satisfy me.

  • Just to make money is not enough meaning in life."

  • Xiao Jin: "Now, after I get off work, I study English,

  • because in the future, our customers won't

  • be only Chinese, so we must learn more languages."

  • All of these speakers, by the way, are young women,

  • 18 or 19 years old.

  • So I spent two years getting to know assembly line workers

  • like these in the south China factory city called Dongguan.

  • Certain subjects came up over and over:

  • how much money they made,

  • what kind of husband they hoped to marry,

  • whether they should jump to another factory

  • or stay where they were.

  • Other subjects came up almost never, including

  • living conditions that to me looked close to prison life:

  • 10 or 15 workers in one room,

  • 50 people sharing a single bathroom,

  • days and nights ruled by the factory clock.

  • Everyone they knew lived in similar circumstances,

  • and it was still better than the dormitories and homes

  • of rural China.

  • The workers rarely spoke about the products they made,

  • and they often had great difficulty explaining

  • what exactly they did.

  • When I asked Lu Qingmin,

  • the young woman I got to know best,

  • what exactly she did on the factory floor,

  • she said something to me in Chinese that sounded like

  • "qiu xi."

  • Only much later did I realize that she had been saying

  • "QC," or quality control.

  • She couldn't even tell me what she did on the factory floor.

  • All she could do was parrot a garbled abbreviation

  • in a language she didn't even understand.

  • Karl Marx saw this as the tragedy of capitalism,

  • the alienation of the worker from the product of his labor.

  • Unlike, say, a traditional maker of shoes or cabinets,

  • the worker in an industrial factory has no control,

  • no pleasure, and no true satisfaction or understanding

  • in her own work.

  • But like so many theories that Marx arrived at

  • sitting in the reading room of the British Museum,

  • he got this one wrong.

  • Just because a person spends her time

  • making a piece of something does not mean

  • that she becomes that, a piece of something.

  • What she does with the money she earns,

  • what she learns in that place, and how it changes her,

  • these are the things that matter.

  • What a factory makes is never the point, and

  • the workers could not care less who buys their products.

  • Journalistic coverage of Chinese factories,

  • on the other hand, plays up this relationship

  • between the workers and the products they make.

  • Many articles calculate: How long would it take

  • for this worker to work in order to earn enough money

  • to buy what he's making?

  • For example, an entry-level-line assembly line worker

  • in China in an iPhone plant would have to shell out

  • two and a half months' wages for an iPhone.

  • But how meaningful is this calculation, really?

  • For example, I recently wrote an article

  • in The New Yorker magazine,

  • but I can't afford to buy an ad in it.

  • But, who cares? I don't want an ad in The New Yorker,

  • and most of these workers don't really want iPhones.

  • Their calculations are different.

  • How long should I stay in this factory?

  • How much money can I save?

  • How much will it take to buy an apartment or a car,

  • to get married, or to put my child through school?

  • The workers I got to know had a curiously abstract

  • relationship with the product of their labor.

  • About a year after I met Lu Qingmin, or Min,

  • she invited me home to her family village

  • for the Chinese New Year.

  • On the train home, she gave me a present:

  • a Coach brand change purse with brown leather trim.

  • I thanked her, assuming it was fake,

  • like almost everything else for sale in Dongguan.

  • After we got home, Min gave her mother another present:

  • a pink Dooney & Bourke handbag,

  • and a few nights later, her sister was showing off

  • a maroon LeSportsac shoulder bag.

  • Slowly it was dawning on me that these handbags

  • were made by their factory,

  • and every single one of them was authentic.

  • Min's sister said to her parents,

  • "In America, this bag sells for 320 dollars."

  • Her parents, who are both farmers, looked on, speechless.

  • "And that's not all -- Coach is coming out with a new line,

  • 2191," she said. "One bag will sell for 6,000."

  • She paused and said, "I don't know if that's 6,000 yuan or

  • 6,000 American dollars, but anyway, it's 6,000." (Laughter)

  • Min's sister's boyfriend, who had traveled home with her

  • for the new year, said,

  • "It doesn't look like it's worth that much."

  • Min's sister turned to him and said, "Some people actually

  • understand these things. You don't understand shit."

  • (Laughter) (Applause)

  • In Min's world, the Coach bags had a curious currency.

  • They weren't exactly worthless, but they were nothing

  • close to the actual value, because almost no one they knew

  • wanted to buy one, or knew how much it was worth.

  • Once, when Min's older sister's friend got married,

  • she brought a handbag along as a wedding present.

  • Another time, after Min had already left

  • the handbag factory, her younger sister came to visit,

  • bringing two Coach Signature handbags as gifts.

  • I looked in the zippered pocket of one,

  • and I found a printed card in English, which read,

  • "An American classic.

  • In 1941, the burnished patina

  • of an all-American baseball glove

  • inspired the founder of Coach to create

  • a new collection of handbags from the same

  • luxuriously soft gloved-hand leather.

  • Six skilled leatherworkers crafted 12 Signature handbags

  • with perfect proportions and a timeless flair.

  • They were fresh, functional, and women everywhere

  • adored them. A new American classic was born."

  • I wonder what Karl Marx would have made of Min

  • and her sisters.

  • Their relationship with the product of their labor

  • was more complicated, surprising and funny

  • than he could have imagined.

  • And yet, his view of the world persists, and our tendency

  • to see the workers as faceless masses,

  • to imagine that we can know what they're really thinking.

  • The first time I met Min, she had just turned 18

  • and quit her first job on the assembly line

  • of an electronics factory.

  • Over the next two years, I watched as she switched jobs

  • five times, eventually landing a lucrative post

  • in the purchasing department of a hardware factory.

  • Later, she married a fellow migrant worker,

  • moved with him to his village,

  • gave birth to two daughters,

  • and saved enough money to buy a secondhand Buick

  • for herself and an apartment for her parents.

  • She recently returned to Dongguan on her own

  • to take a job in a factory that makes construction cranes,

  • temporarily leaving her husband and children

  • back in the village.

  • In a recent email to me, she explained,

  • "A person should have some ambition while she is young

  • so that in old age she can look back on her life

  • and feel that it was not lived to no purpose."

  • Across China, there are 150 million workers like her,

  • one third of them women, who have left their villages

  • to work in the factories, the hotels, the restaurants

  • and the construction sites of the big cities.

  • Together, they make up the largest migration in history,

  • and it is globalization, this chain that begins

  • in a Chinese farming village

  • and ends with iPhones in our pockets and Nikes on our feet

  • and Coach handbags on our arms

  • that has changed the way these millions of people

  • work and marry and live and think.

  • Very few of them would want to go back

  • to the way things used to be.

  • When I first went to Dongguan, I worried that

  • it would be depressing to spend so much time with workers.

  • I also worried that nothing would ever happen to them,

  • or that they would have nothing to say to me.

  • Instead, I found young women who were smart and funny

  • and brave and generous.

  • By opening up their lives to me,

  • they taught me so much about factories

  • and about China and about how to live in the world.

  • This is the Coach purse that Min gave me

  • on the train home to visit her family.

  • I keep it with me to remind me of the ties that tie me

  • to the young women I wrote about,

  • ties that are not economic but personal in nature,

  • measured not in money but in memories.

  • This purse is also a reminder that the things that you imagine,

  • sitting in your office or in the library,

  • are not how you find them when you actually go out

  • into the world.

  • Thank you. (Applause)

  • (Applause)

  • Chris Anderson: Thank you, Leslie, that was an insight

  • that a lot of us haven't had before.

  • But I'm curious. If you had a minute, say,

  • with Apple's head of manufacturing,

  • what would you say?

  • Leslie Chang: One minute?

  • CA: One minute. (Laughter)

  • LC: You know, what really impressed me about the workers

  • is how much they're self-motivated, self-driven,

  • resourceful, and the thing that struck me,

  • what they want most is education, to learn,

  • because most of them come from very poor backgrounds.

  • They usually left school when they were in 7th or 8th grade.

  • Their parents are often illiterate,

  • and then they come to the city, and they, on their own,

  • at night, during the weekends, they'll take a computer class,

  • they'll take an English class, and learn

  • really, really rudimentary things, you know,

  • like how to type a document in Word,